June 14, 1999
Patrick Kennedy tries to grow up
JOHN J. MILLER
When Patrick J. Kennedy first ran for political office, in 1988, he spent at least $94,000 to capture 1,324 votes-about $ 71 apiece. He won a seat in the Rhode Island state legislature, a job that paid $ 300 per year, by beating a ten-year Democratic incumbent. “These races usually don’t cost more than $6,000,” says Brown University political scientist Darrell West. “Kennedy’s continues to be the most expensive in state legislative history.”
Kennedy was a 21-year-old Providence College junior at the time, and his early political success only burnished the image of the Kennedy clan. Media from around the country charted Patrick’s rise. After he won election to Congress in 1994, many thought it was only a matter of time before this prodigy followed his father, Ted, into the Senate. Because the Constitution requires senators to be at least 30, all Kennedy needed to do was grow up. Republican senator John Chafee’s term was set to expire in 2000, the year of Kennedy’s 33rd birthday. So before Kennedy was even sworn in as a member of Congress, the trajectory of his career appeared certain.
But when Chafee announced his retirement in March, Kennedy insisted that he would stay put and forgo the opportunity to enter the chamber in which his father and uncles built their careers. “It could be another 24 years before there’s an open seat,” Rhode Island senator Jack Reed, a Democrat, opined to the Boston Globe. Kennedy has decided, at least for the time being, to cast his lot in the House, where he has not yet made much of an impact. “He’s irrelevant,” sniffs one Democratic staffer.
But not necessarily. Last fall, minority leader Dick Gephardt tapped Kennedy to become head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the party’s fifth-ranking leadership post and the one chiefly responsible for candidate recruitment and fundraising. Now “Congressboy,” as one Providence radio host dubbed him, is being taken seriously. If the Democrats capture the House in 2000, Kennedy will be seen as a big reason why. In fact, a victory would catapult him even higher in the Democratic hierarchy, perhaps even putting him in position to succeed Gephardt sometime in the next decade. The country may not see another President Kennedy; but how about a Speaker Kennedy?
Kennedy doesn’t deny that he owes his meteoric rise almost entirely to his family name. When he first ran for Congress, his father, who was running for his own reelection, drenched the Providence media market, which includes southern Massachusetts, with campaign commercials that emphasized the “Kennedy” rather than the “Ted.” Since then, Patrick has become one of the most requested speakers on the Democratic dinner circuit-a sort of hand-me-down version of Camelot. As a bachelor in a safe seat, he has the freedom to travel the country in a constant search for dollars. In 1996, in fact, Kennedy twice visited the Buddhist temple made infamous by Al Gore. Last year, he raked in about $ 1.5 million for Democratic House candidates. And this September, he will host the DCCC’s $100,000 donors at the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port.
It wasn’t always obvious that Kennedy would find success in politics. In his senior year of high school at Phillips Academy, he checked into a drug and alcohol clinic. That bit of news became public during the brouhaha surrounding the William Kennedy Smith rape trial, when Patrick ran into further bad publicity for his participation in midnight revels. What’s more, Kennedy’s quickness has been called into question. He uses cheat sheets during press conferences on House races, when a pol in his position ought really to commit such things to memory. “He’s smarter than Joe, but not by much,” says one GOP aide, referring to Kennedy’s cousin, who retired from Congress last year after an abortive run for Massachusetts governor.
Today, Patrick’s bad habits seem a thing of the past, thanks in part to a powerful mentor. Gephardt has long had an interest in his young colleague, and Kennedy is widely regarded as the minority leader’s protege. They operate a joint political action committee and make frequent campaign appearances together.
Democrats report that Kennedy is well liked by his colleagues, even if he has a temper. Kennedy has picketed Sen. Chafee’s district office on more than one occasion, a weird breach of decorum for a state with so small a congressional delegation. He also gets into shouting matches with Republicans routinely, especially when his family name is involved. In December, he started hollering at Rep. Bob Barr of Georgia after Barr referred to President Kennedy in a speech supporting impeachment. Three years ago, Kennedy and former representative Gerald Solomon of New York exchanged heated words when Kennedy conjured the ghosts of his dead uncles during a gun-control debate. “Families like mine know all too well what the damage of weapons can do. My God, all I have to say to you is, play with the devil, die with the devil,” Kennedy said. This was simply too much for Solomon.
Family loyalty also has inspired one of Kennedy’s rare breaks with the Left: He happens to be a hardliner on Cuba. His strong anti-Castro views are informed, he admits, by a suspicion that the dictator had a hand in the assassination of his uncle. In 1996, when Cuba shot down a pair of civilian planes piloted by Cuban-American protesters, Kennedy suggested that the United States respond with a blockade.
Apart from his anti-Castro bent, and occasional support for increased defense spending (there is a large naval presence in his district), Kennedy is a conventional liberal. He never hesitates to attack Republican tax cuts as being “for the rich.” Even so, he recently introduced a bill to provide a 20 percent tax credit to people who buy U.S.-built boats more than 50 feet long. Kennedy says his intention is to help create jobs for blue-collar workers in his district. Trickle-down economics, anyone?
On social issues, Kennedy can be as much a firebrand as his father, but without the Boston accent. Three years ago, he announced that the Catholic Church ought to ordain women as priests. “I hope in the near term the Church crawls out of the Stone Age,” he said. He later apologized for the remark. In a speech earlier this year, Kennedy linked the horrific truck-dragging death of James Byrd Jr., a black man murdered by white racists in Texas, to the GOP Congress. “You know how this hate happens?” he asked. “It’s because people are given a green light, and society condones this stuff.”
That kind of rhetoric is what makes Kennedy so disliked by Republicans. And it may also be the secret reason he isn’t running for Senate. He polarizes voters. “There are lots of little old ladies with shrines to JFK in his district,” says Providence businessman Dan Pineau. Yet for every devotee, there is a detractor. Brown University polling shows that Kennedy elicits strong reactions, both positive and negative. Democratic representative Bob Weygand has declared his candidacy for Senate, and it’s not obvious that Kennedy would beat him in a primary. Then there’s the general election, which will probably see the Democrat square off against Sen. Chafee’s son, Warwick mayor Lincoln Chafee.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee may yet punch Kennedy’s ticket for the future. But given the choice between a risky race and coasting on the momentum of his inherited political legacy, he has opted for the latter. And why not? It’s worked so far.